Agave beverages have a long and rich history in Mexico and in recent years, mezcal has skyrocketed in popularity. While it’s relatively new to drinkers outside of Mexico, mezcal has been a part of Indigenous Mexican culture for centuries, long before Spanish colonization.
Liliana “Lily” Palma, an Indigenous Oaxaqueña whose family is from Santiago Matatlán (called the “Mezcal Capital of the World”), noticed that Indigenous mezcal producers were not getting the representation they deserved in the mezcal industry, so she created Zapotec Travel, a tour company that introduces travelers to Indigenous-owned restaurants, activities, and palenques (distilleries) in Oaxaca City, Matatlán, and neighboring towns.
I toured a handful of the producers Palma works with during an eight-day stay in Matatlán, where I tasted more mezcal than I ever have in my life. Below are seven masterful producers from her tour, along with must-sample mezcals from each—be sure to save room for a few bottles in your checked bag.
Mezcalerias to visit
Mezcal Palenque 5 Estrellas
The backstory: Angela Magdalena Mextli and Lorenzo Martinez Monterroza are a third-generation mezcal-making brother-sister duo who grew up in the Sierra Norte mountain region with their family. They explore the mountains around Oaxaca to harvest whichever wild, mature agaves they find, no matter the variety. Then they roast all of the agaves together to make a mega-blend mezcal.
What to drink: Stop by for one of the team’s curated food and mezcal pairings, which vary based on the blend. The menu relies on seasonality and foraging—if you visit during mango season, you might enjoy some mezcal alongside tostadas topped with guacamole, mango salsa, queso fresco, and grasshoppers.
Mezcal Desde la Eternidad
The backstory: Mezcal Eternidad is owned by mom-daughter duo Hortensia Hernández Martínez and her Lidia Hernández. Their palenque and tasting room—located just off one of the main roads in Matatlán—offer more than 30 types of mezcal, many of which are agave blends, while others are medicinal mezcals infused with local herbs.
What to drink: Two favorites here are the Ensamble (a smoky blend of two wild agave), and 14 Hierbas, a medicinal mezcal that’s floral and slightly sweeter than expected.
MEZCAL DRINKING 101
- Unlike tequila, mezcal is sipped at room temperature—and never slugged back in a shot glass. Why? With a higher ABV than tequila, it offers a prolific array of flavor profiles that can’t be detected in a swift chug.
- Before you have your first sip, tip your glass to let a small amount of mezcal fall to the floor in honor of the mezcaleros/as who have passed.
- Mezcal cocktails are generally only popular with visitors and non-Indigenous folks—but if you’re going to use mezcal to make a cocktail, only use Espadín. This type of mezcal is the “blank slate” of the mezcal world and is the most abundant, whereas wild agaves are rare and have flavors far too bold to be mixed with anything else.
- Store mezcal in a cool space to keep the flavor and intensity intact.
The backstory: Sabina Mateo, the maestra mezcalera, and her late husband Mario López were born into mezcal-making families; now she and her sons continue to grow their brand. Lopez Real is one of the few Indigenous-owned brands that can be bought outside of Mexico (including in the U.S.), Japan, and soon, a few European countries).
What to drink: Lopez Real sells five different types of mezcal, from the citrus and flowery Cuishe (my fave) to the deeply smoky Tobalo. If it’s in stock, you must try the Pechuga; exclusively made by Sabina once a year, it’s her love offering to her late husband.
Extra tip: There are few things more magical than visiting this palenque at night for a mezcal tasting under the stars with Sabina—and her dogs.
Liberamos el Alma
The backstory: Isabel Santiago Hernández, the owner and producer of Liberamos el Alma, decided to open her own palenque after not being allowed to join her family’s brand—all because she’s a woman. Today, she makes mezcal out of her grandfather’s palenque, with plans to break ground on her own soon.
What to drink: The smooth Dia de los Muertos mezcal—infused with the fruit mix her family places on their ancestors’ altar during the holiday, including oranges, nectarines, pineapples, and other seasonal fruits—finishes like a fruit cocktail. Drink it with a side of mangoes to magnify the fruity notes ten-fold without changing the consistency.
Mezcal Casa García
The backstory: Teresa Mendez Hernandez and her family own a community-favorite brand, Mezcal Casa Garcia, focusing on wild agaves and Espadín. Their original cream-based mezcal is ideal for people who need a cocktail-like stepping stone into the world of mezcal. This is a spot where you’ll see a lot of locals coming to get their refillable mezcal jugs replenished.
What to drink: Try the cream-based mezcal, which is a bit like a mezcal version of Baileys Irish Cream liqueur, or the añejo. Though añejos—aged or vintage spirits—are relatively common in the tequila world, they’re much rarer in the universe of mezcals. The one here has a caramel note that’s particularly delicious.
Palomo Mezcal Artesanal
The backstory: This massive family operation is run by matriarch Margarita Blas, along with her children and grandchildren; the tasting room, in fact, is built out of her childhood home. Many Indigenous producers build their palenques in and around their family home, partially because mezcal-making is a 24/7 job and because this product is deeply rooted in home, community, and family.
What to drink: While the family has an overall great collection, the Madrecuishe mezcal deserves a spot in your luggage. Things start with a powerful punch on the palette, then ease into a soft minerality that reminded me of some of my favorite Sauvignon Blancs.
The backstory: If you want to see the most traditional form of mezcal-making, this is where to go. Gonzalo Martinez Sernas and his family produce small-batch ancestral mezcal made traditionally in clay pots primarily using wild and partially cultivated agaves (as in, planted in the mountains outside Matatlán). A unique storeroom, made of adobe, contains mezcal that has been aging since the 1980s.
What to drink: There’s no one option that I can recommend here because Gonzalo uses so many types of agaves, creates so many blends, and focuses so much seasonality and sustainability. You can visit his palenque every year and find a new mezcal every time.
Where to stay:
All of these vacation rentals are Indigenous-owned and related to the mezcal industry.
This hyper-local, hacienda-style stay, where I bunked when I was in town, is right behind Lily’s family restaurant, Criollito, so traditional Zapotec food is always a few steps away.
This family-owned, pet-friendly cottage in Matatlán sits on the host family’s palenque—the mezcal party doesn’t have to stop when your tour is over.
When you check into this luxury rental in Oaxaca City, you’ll be welcomed with agua fresca, some shareable Oaxacan snacks, and some of the host family’s favorite mezcals. There’s also an attached tasting room stocked with—what else?—mezcal, with many bottles made by maestro Mezcaleros.
Source: Trip Advisor